I've preached this homily twice before, years apart, with different examples. I reread it this year wondering if the beginning would seem stale, if I'd need to rewrite it, but I still like it. I hope other people will, too. The readings are Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45. *
“How could God let this happen?”
We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. In my volunteer work in the ER, I’ve heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.
The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week. Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God. After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.
As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.
Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?
Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.
It’s believers who rail at God. “We know you can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. Where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”
Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says. I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”
Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right. He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.
Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here. This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.
The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will show us how to unbind what has been resurrected.
The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe. Look at today’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. That’s a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages. First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.
That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray, God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.
But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.
This makes resurrection inescapably political. People desperate for new life can’t achieve it if they’re deported back to their tombs. They can’t achieve it if the communities to which they have journeyed put them in handcuffs instead of unbinding them. They can’t achieve it if other people’s fear of who they are, or where they came from, overcomes willingness to love.
Here, courtesy of CNN, is a story about what that kind of love looks like. In January, an Illinois woman named Nancy Swabb learned about a baby girl in Cote D’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast in Africa, who needed emergency life-saving surgery in the United States. Baby Dominique also needed foster care during her treatment. Swabb and her family, who live near the hospital that donated the surgery, opened their home to Dominique and asked their neighbors to help out with supplies. Within two days, a pile taller than Swabb herself filled the house. Neighbors donated diapers, formula, wipes, clothes, a stroller, a car seat and a playpen. Swabb's daily walks with Dominique in the stroller stretched to an hour as neighbors stopped to greet the baby they had helped welcome. "She has become the community baby, and everyone has been really interested in her story," Swabb said.
Dominque’s story ends as happily as Lazarus’ did. Her long, complicated, risky surgery was more successful than the doctors had dared hope. She is recovering well and will return to her African birth family in April. "I can't wait for her parents to see her," says Swabb, who hopes that the two families can meet someday.
Here in Reno, St. Paul’s -- along with other churches -- has welcomed our local family of Syrian refugees just this warmly. But having kids in the picture makes that easier. Dominique is ten months old and adorable. The Syrian family has small children, too. Kids remind us of innocence, of birth, of Christmas. Lazarus, four days dead and reeking, probably wasn’t adorable, but he was welcomed back into the world by people who’d known him his entire life, who already loved him.
Our challenge as a country right now is to remember that everyone alive is someone’s child: both God’s child and the child of human parents. Everyone alive was a baby once, as lovely as Dominique, as the Syrian children, as the infant Jesus on Christmas morning. Our challenge is to help yesterday’s Christmases become tomorrow’s Easters. We are called to unbind, not just the innocent and adorable, but the adults such children become, people whose unlovely tombs and journeys have left them shattered and smelly and scarred. We may well demand to know how God, or other people, could let this happen to them. But even if we never learn the answers, we can still welcome them into new and abundant life.